There’s an old axiom in the film business: Never work with children or animals.
In Zookeeper, Kevin James not only breaks this rule, he tramples on it like a stampeding elephant. Speaking of which, the film’s cast includes a giant pachyderm, not to mention a pair of lions, bears, a giraffe, a wolf and a very mischievous monkey. (But hey, at least no children!)
Alas, if only these furry fellows could speak in real life, like they do in the film to James’ character Griffin Keyes, a bumbling zookeeper who gets lessons in love from his animal friends — sort of like Hitch, except the role of Will Smith is a played by an entire menagerie. After all, if these creatures understood English, then producing the film would have been a lot less challenging for the cast and crew. Not to mention less intimidating. (You can’t exactly politely ask a carnivorous cat not to eat you.)
“The scariest was the lion,” said James, who also co-produced and co-wrote the movie, which was shot at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. James recalled how the trainers and crew would get deadly serious the moment the male lion was removed from his enclosure. “It was like Hannibal Lecter… And when it was done working, it was done.”
“That lion -- when he locks on you, he just turns and you’re like, oh God, I’m food,” said James’ co-star Leslie Bibb, who plays Stephanie, the woman James’ character is trying to woo. In fact, when the cast and crew brought their families on set to visit the animals, the lioness would often stare at the little children with ravenous eyes.
“The lioness was following my son,” said producer Todd Garner. Not long after that, James approached the same lion. “Kevin goes, ‘What do I do if the lion gets out?’ and the trainer goes: ‘Stay away from the kid.’ I’m like, ‘Oh great.”
Standing in proximity to not one, but two trained bears (voiced by Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) wasn’t so reassuring either. “The bears were close to us,” said James, “and all I would do is just plan my escape route: I know I’m faster than [director Frank] Coraci and I know the cameraman’s a smoker. So I can push him into that guy...”
Otherwise, James held his own with the animals. “Kevin was pretty brave,” said Coraci. “We actually shot scenes where Kevin was brave enough to get in with the wolf and massage [it]. You wouldn’t know he didn’t like it. It seemed like he liked it.”
“I did not like it at all,” responded James, who also got French kissed by a giraffe in the making of this film.
Making the shoot even trickier were the scenes in which all of the chatty critters would gather together after hours. Coraci had to painstakingly film each animal separately outside of its enclosure, only to make it look in post-production as if the zoo’s inhabitants were all hanging out like the best of friends.
Despite the challenges involved, the cast and crew considered it a special privilege to work with these awe-inspiring animals, whose spontaneous and unscripted behaviors often made it into the final cut.
“I was nervous as a producer because these movies can go horribly off the rails. There have been animal movies that have really gone wrong budget-wise and time-wise,” said Garner. “The game plan was always just plow through, and it just worked great. The animals were amazing and it all came together well.”
One animal in particular gave the filmmakers no trouble at all: Bernie the gorilla. Of course, that’s because he wasn’t real; he was actually an animatronic primate, operated by two separate actors.
“The movements and the face of this gorilla — it’s so insane what they can do with him,” said James. “I’ve gotten more emotion [from him than] some other actors I’ve worked with,” he joked.
All in all, the zoo was an unforgettable place to monkey around. “We spent a lot of time behind the scenes with real zookeepers and realizing how it’s such a thankless job,” said Coraci. “They work really hard for not a lot of money and they just love the animals.”
And love, of course, is a universal language that every animal can speak.